In my earbuds, Watts was talking about the strategies used by the zen master. Apparently, the zen master tries to refuse whatever student shows up on his door: "I have nothing to teach you." And if the prospective student continues, the zen master tells him the monastery is too poor to take another student. If the student still persists, the zen master makes him wait outside for a week, letting the student in for shelter only at night, and expecting that the student will not fall asleep.
"Zen master, teach me how to do zen," begs the student. And the zen master presents the student with some silly koan or other -- maybe he puts tar on his left hand and feathers in his right hand, rubs them together, and tells him to pick the feathers out. Or he tells him not to think of a green elephant, etc. Or he tells them to think about thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking.
He persists in these reversals until the student recognizes (or rather, experiences) zen. I love this approach. I admire it. It comes naturally to me. It is how I want to practice.
But my students are essentially unwilling. As I mentioned the other day, 18 out of 19 of them would take the diploma and run if I could hand it to them -- they are diligently incurious. Faced with their passive resistance, I am forced to become the teacher I never wanted to be: active, demanding, authoritative.
And here is where I would have said to myself, one year ago, "No!--don't do that! Sit there for as long as it takes. If you have to waste two classes sitting in silence, it is worth it!" What I didn't realize last year--what I couldn't have known--is that our academic department, indeed our entire college, is beholden to the standards of an accrediting agency.
In case your reaction is, "Well, back them into it (or, 'zen them into it')," let me make one thing clear: students who take my introductory writing class must be able to (I'll spare you the ugly actual details) or else the department loses certification:
- Tie their shoes
- Walk a balance beam
- Stand on their head
Now, is it possible to be the zen-practicing professor if you find yourself students who want to learn all kinds of things, but who are adamantly not interested in learning about tying shoes, hopscotching, balance beaming, and head-standing? Don't mistake this for a hypothetical question: I'm actually asking.
I have considered starting class conversation this way:
- What could I tell you (pl.) this story is about that would make you (pl.) disagree with me?
- Did you hate this story? Why/why not?
- What would you say about this story just to sound good if someone mentioned it to you at a very important business meeting five years from now, minutes before you sign the big contract?
- Name something painful that you'd rather do than discuss Updike's short story, "A&P."
And I've thought about giving lectures where I launch into ridiculous misdirections and bad interpretations (Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" is about alien abduction, Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a secret cooking recipe, etc.).
I remember learning in college that Confucius would take only one student at a time and would never take any but the most eager student. I want to be like Confucius. Help.